Muslim backpack program expands in US, abroad.
By M. SCOTT BORTOT
It all started when Zakat Foundation (http://www.zakat.org/)
Executive Director Khalil Demir decided to help his fellow citizens on
Chicago's South Side, regardless of their religion.
"When school starts and many kids don't have a
backpack, they feel terrible," Demir said.
For the eighth consecutive year, the Illinois-based Zakat
Foundation is distributing backpacks laden with notebooks, pens and pencils,
rulers and calculators to children in poor neighborhoods.
Sheryl Bilal, the Zakat Foundation's social services
director, said the backpack program began in 2002 under the slogan "To
Kids, from Kids, with Love."
Youth volunteers often supply and fill the backpacks.
"It is a privilege for Zakat Foundation to be able
to provide school supplies and backpacks to so many children," Bilal said.
"Their excitement at having new things for school is evident in their
Most recently, the Zakat Foundation teamed up with the
police department in Markham, Illinois, south of Chicago. Officers picked up
about 150 supply-filled backpacks from Zakat for distribution in their
Terry Durkin, a civilian resource officer at the City of
Markham Police Department, said she tapped into the Zakat Foundation's help
when she started a backpack program in her city's public schools six years ago.
"When I see the kids every day who don't have
pencils and crayons and book bags, that's when I decided to get a book bag
program together," Durkin said.
This year's Zakat program aims to hand out 600 backpacks
in the Chicago area.
In addition to the Markham Police Department, Zakat
contributed backpacks to a program with the Juvenile Probation and Court
Services Department of Cook County, which serves the Chicago area.
Other Muslim organizations in Chicago join Zakat in
distributing backpacks. Backpack distributions are planned for the Light of
Islam Mosque, Masjid Dawah and social services group Project Downtown: Chicago.
Michael Swies, lead organizer for Project Downtown:
Chicago, said his group first partnered with Zakat in 2008 to distribute school
supplies in some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. At Project Downtown:
Chicago, volunteers hand out the backpacks to children and parents from Islamic
learning center Masjid Dawah.
"A lot of [the parents] are having a hard time
figuring about where they are putting their money," Swies said. "By
them having school supplies provided, it makes it easier for them to put their
money toward food and other basic needs."
Although the backpacks are distributed from a mosque,
Swies said most families receiving them are not Muslim. Project Downtown:
Chicago plans to distribute Zakat Foundation backpacks on the weekend of Sept.
Early success in the backpack program prompted Zakat to
take it overseas in 2003.
"Each year we find a different country that we are
going to donate to and we send the bags there," Bilal said. "We wait
until we have quite a number of bags for our shipping container and then we
send that along with other things like medical supplies and computers and
Zakat's international and local backpack programs are
identical except at the preparation phase.
For the local program, Zakat purchases backpacks and
supplies and packs them before distribution. With the international program,
Zakat has individual donors provide and fill backpacks so the donors and their
children will feel a personal connection to the effort.
"We also encourage them if they want to have pen
pals overseas, that they could put a little note in there," Bilal said.
"They would fill the backpacks with whatever supplies they wanted to send
to the children and then have them delivered to our offices."
This year, the Zakat Foundation is sending backpacks to children
in Pakistan along with supplies associated with flood relief.
Zakat Foundation officials said the local and
international backpack programs continue to expand as families around the world
struggle to make ends meet.
Copyright: Arab News 2009 All rights reserved.
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